Don’t just set goals. Invest in them.

In today’s data-driven world, organizations are focused on metrics that track progress towards goals. There is ample research demonstrating that success comes when there are clear goals, and people are persistent about achieving them. But from real experience, we know that more often than not we get derailed from our goals. Usually towards the end of the year there is a mad rush to meet the numbers. And every other performance parameter hinges on this end-of-the-line dash. Some people win, and some don’t.

How then can we approach goals and achievement, so that it becomes an assured prospect? Try these fundamental practices.

  1. Debate about the strategies. Often, to create a collaborative environment, managers invite teams to set goals together. But organizational research shows that in doing so, the goals either become too audacious, or non-challenging. Instead, the invitation for managers is to set the goals themselves, and then facilitate a team process on how to achieve them. In filtering the best strategies to accomplish the goal, teams experience what is called the ‘endowment effect’ – a mindset of ascribing more value and ownership to something, as a result of having created/ decided it themselves.

This practice is called ‘management by objectives’. Dave Packard, who based Hewlett-Packard’s ‘HP Way’ on MBO, described it as “a system in which overall objectives are clearly stated and agreed upon, and which gives people the flexibility to work toward those goals in ways they determine best for their own areas of responsibility.”

  1. Impact the way people work. Achieving a goal is purely based on a consistent habit of doing so. Doctors know this well! Hence, when they set a health target for their patients, they often design the path towards that with small yet consistent action points. This increases the proximity of the goal. Thus, for managers, this means being proactive about the team’s early success, and designing processes/actions that help progress. It’s not so much about fire-fighting when there is a problem, but more about preventing collapses.
  1. Build experiences, not results. Though goals are undeniable, over-focusing on them is counter-productive. According to a study by the University of Chicago, it takes the focus away from the pursuit/ experience, ultimately reducing one’s intrinsic motivation. How would someone be successful then? By building practices that moderate focus on the singular goal, yet ensure achievement. And this may also mean trying something unrelated to the task at hand. “If we pursue new and interesting directions rather than preordained goals, we’ll achieve better outcomes,” say researchers Stanley and Joel Lehman.

For example, if you want your team to innovate 3 new products, think about what constitutes this skill – asking questions, taking risks, generating multiple ideas, etc. Invite your team to practice these components across all initiatives.

With these practices in tow, goals would not only command achievement, but also an investment that is persistent. Things would not then depend on a singular annual intervention. Would you be game to try them?

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